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The Public Faces of Coronavirus: Indian Americans in Pandemic Spotlight

The Public Faces of Coronavirus: Indian Americans in Pandemic Spotlight

The current COVID-19 crisis has put the spotlight on Indian American doctors like never before. Flip through any major network news channel – and there’s mostly a desi doctor deciphering the pandemic for the audience.

It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Indian Americans in the medical field — doctors with expertise in global health issues and government administrators and media personalities — have become some of the most visible public faces of fighting the pandemic. Although their accomplishments have been well known, they have been brought to the forefront because of the current health scare.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

One of the most prominent Indian Americans in the medical field today is Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent. Dr. Gupta is probably next only to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, who America listens to since the COVID-19 outbreak at least three months ago. 

A multiple Emmy winning neurosurgeon, with the unassuming designation of medical correspondent, Dr. Gupta has been on every news segment on CNN and CNN International, almost every day, providing information, advice and analysis about all things COVID-19. 

He is America’s doctor during the most serious healthcare crisis the country has ever encountered.

Dr. Gupta, along with other Indian Americans like Seema Verma, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator and a member of President Trump’s coronavirus task force; former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek MurthyDr. Kavita Patel, Nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Ashish Jha of the Harvard Global Health Institute, are some of the public faces of the coronavirus pandemic, working around the clock, demystifying the health scare. 

Dr. Vin Gupta

Like Dr. Gupta, Dr. Murthy, who served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, from 2014 to 2017, has been seen across major news networks, warning people and urging them to do their part in “flattening the curve.” Another Indian American physician who has been educating Americans with evidence-based information is pulmonologist and global health policy expert Dr. Vin Gupta (no relation to Dr. Sanjay Gupta). The Harvard-trained lung specialist has been tapped as a medical contributor to MSNBC and NBC.

While Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Dr. Murthy and others are the helping Americans decipher the current health crisis and navigate through these trying and uncertain times, Seema Verma, a member of President Trump’s coronavirus task force, is working behind the scenes with Vice President Mike Pence and others. 

Then there are others like Illinois physician, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County Chief Medical Examiner, who has been preparing for a surge in COVID-19 deaths for the past month. In a recent interview to Chicago Sun Times, she said her staff has been working 12- to 16-hour shifts to deal with the 70 to 80 cases a day. Similarly, she said her office is stepping up precautions to protect its doctors and technicians as well. Dr. Arunkumar was appointed to her current position in July 2016 by Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle. She had been serving as interim chief since June. Prior to that, she had been the deputy chief medical examiner since September 2012.

However, it’s not just pulmonologists, hospitalists, infectious disease specialists and critical care doctors who have been in the forefront. Physicians of all specialties have been rushing to hospitals across the country to help out and treat patients infected from the novel coronavirus. Be in the metros or the rural parts of the nation, Indian American physicians like obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Kavitha Ram of New Yorkor internist Dr. Parth Mehta of Peoria, Illinois are stepping up to offer their expertise and guidance. In May, Dr. Ram delivered a premature baby through C-Section at the Jamaica Hospital in Queens, to a mother who was affected by Covid-19.

Indranill Basu Ray

Some physicians are taking their expertise beyond the U.S. and helping countries of their origin. Tennessee-based physician Indranill Basu Ray, a cardiologist and cardiac electrophysiologist, in a letter to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, urged not to take anything for granted and take all necessary steps to prevent large-scale illness and fatalities in the state. He stressed the importance of maintaining strict social distancing to “ensure that this dangerous virus could be prevented from spreading and killing as it has been doing in certain western countries.”

Dr. Sejal Hathi

Another physician highlighting the plight of doctors and nurses treating those affected with coronavirus is Dr. Sejal Hathi, a resident physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and a clinical fellow on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. “Hospitals across the country are rapidly running out of masks, gowns, protective eye-wear that they desperately need,” she told CNN. “We are being asked to reuse and recycle single-use respirators and surgical masks when we go see patients.” She emphasized that “health care workers are foot soldiers in a war we didn’t foresee and were never trained for. And we’re hurdling forth into a battle with neither the insight into where these infections are nor the armor to protect against them. And that’s really not OK.” According to her LinkedIn profile, Dr. Hathi has founded and led two grassroots social enterprises advancing women’s rights and agency — over time, across 6 continents and 100 countries. In 2013, Dr. Hathi was the youngest of nine appointed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s expert advisory group on women’s and children’s health.

Dr. Uma Madhusudana

There have been some proud moments as well. In April, Dr. Uma Madhusudana, an internist in Middletown, Connecticut, treating COVID-19 patients, and saving lives, was honored as more than 200 cars with recovered patients, relatives and police passed through in front of her house to express their gratitude for her services. 

On the other end are physicians and policy experts who, while echoing similar concerns as Dr. Gupta and Dr. Murthy, are staunch critics of the Trump administration and the way it has been handling the pandemic.

From infectious-disease physician Rishi Desai, to Dr. Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, doctors with expertise in global health issues, have appeared on various news networks to give a clear and true picture of the pandemic.

Rishi Desai

In April, Dr. Desai, Chief Medical Officer at Osmosis in Berkeley, California, made headlines after his appearance on Fox News, where he detailed the shortcomings of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Look at what South Korea did, and what we did. Their population is one-sixth of ours,” he said. “Look at the cases they have. Look at the mortality they have. It’s a trifle compared to what we’re dealing with right now because we’ve had a very weak response and they had a really strong response.” He had also made a case for a sweeping national shutdown. Dr. Desai is the former Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Meanwhile, Dr. Kavita Patel, who served as director of policy for the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement in the White House in the Obama administration, has criticized the Trump administration for its initial response to the coronavirus health scare. According to her profile on Brookings Institution website, Dr. Patel is a practicing primary care internist at Johns Hopkins Medicine. During her role in Obama’s White House, Dr. Patel, as a senior aide to Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior advisor, played a critical role in policy development and evaluation of policy initiatives connected to health reform, financial regulatory reform, and economic recovery issues. 

Another critic of the Trump administration is global health expert Dr. Ashish Jha, a physician and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.  Jha has been tracking the spread of the coronavirus closely over the past couple months and has been outspoken about the Trump administration’s slow response to the threat and the slow pace of testing in the U.S. 

To highlight the shortage of protective gear for medical staff, Jha has changed his Twitter handle to Ashish ‘We need PPEs [personal protective equipment] to protect docs & nurses’ Jha.

There was also uproar among the medical fraternity when Trump suggested exploring disinfectants as a possible treatment for coronavirus infections. Among them was Dr. Vin Gupta.

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“This notion of injecting or ingesting any type of cleansing product into the body is irresponsible, and it’s dangerous,” he told NBC.

Similarly, there are several Indian Americans who are in positions of importance at the state and national level and are working diligently to fight the spread of the dreaded disease. There’s Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control; Dr. Monica Bharel, commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Public Health; Dr. Rahul Sharma, professor and chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine; and Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

Dr. Monica Bharel

With all of these medical experts working in close proximity of those infected, there is a constant risk and fear for front-line workers of contracting the virus. Those fears came true for Dr. Bharel. In late March, Dr. Bharel, who had been working side-by-side with Governor Charlie Baker on ways to slow the spread of coronavirus, and educating the public on the seriousness of the disease, tested positive for Covid-19. Her husband and children also tested positive and got sick around the same time. She told ABC affiliate WCVB5 that her three-week battle with COVID-19 was “intensive and physically exhausting.”

Dr. Nirav Shah

In Maine, Dr. Shah, through his daily press briefings, is the public face of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. According to Bangor Daily News, Shah provides updates on the number of coronavirus cases each day and explains to Mainers the importance of social distancing and other public health measures aimed at slowing the virus’ spread. “Flanked by a sign language interpreter, Shah usually takes questions from reporters for at least a half-hour,” the Bangor Daily News said, adding that Shah has “won over many viewers with a measured voice, detailed answers and simple but striking real-life examples.” Previously, Shah served as the director of the Illinois Department of Health.

Spearheading a new technology – telemedicine – which is gaining prominence due to the pandemic, is Dr. Rahul Sharma, professor and chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. During these trying times, when everyone is changing their way of life by adopting self isolation and social distancing, doctors are navigating the unchartered territories of telemedicine. Telemedicine allows those who are immunocompromised or quarantined to get a doctor’s advice from home. It can also keep patients who believe they may have the coronavirus out of the emergency room where they could spread the disease to others. 

While the NewYork-Presbyterian hospital has been using telemedicine for a long time, Sharma told that although it’s not new, “we’re seeing why it’s so powerful and useful. We want everyone to be safe, and to minimize disease spread.” He said the goal is for people to avoid the ER if it’s not an emergency. Telemedicine is seeing a doctor remotely via video, phone or text. “In a crisis such as COVID-19 our goal is to benefit the public and decrease the risk of infection and telemedicine is a perfect opportunity to do that,” Dr. Sharma told “Good Morning America.”

Dr. Amesh Adalja

While Americans are gradually bracing for the country to reopen for business, experts say that getting back to normal in a safe way will require a massive and ongoing investment in testing and health care. “When we decrease social distancing, when we start to have more activity in the economy, there are going to be more cases. That’s a fact,” Dr. Amesh Adalja told Health Day. 

Dr. Adalja is currently a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s (IDSA) Precision Medicine working group and is one of their media spokespersons. His work is focused on emerging infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity. He told TribLive that it is important to keep the pace of new coronavirus cases at a rate that’s slow enough it does not impact hospital capacity. 

He noted that that social distancing of varying degrees is going to be required until there is a vaccine. “It will be especially important for those at high risk of complications to continue to social distance even as things start to loosen,” he said. Dr. Adalja is among several experts who worry about the relapse of the virus. “I suspect this will come back [and] if we do get any kind of lull in the summer that this will likely pick up in the fall, just like other coronaviruses do,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

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